Arsenal Season Recap: What happened before everything spiralled out of control?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
As we return to the Premier League tomorrow after 3 months out from the season, I thought I’d do a brief (ish) recap on everything that has happened so far this season. I’ll imprint my own narrative on the campaign into your brains so that you remember it exactly how I want you to remember it (😅).
Considering it’s now over 10 months since we kicked off our season at St. James’ Park, it can be easy to forget a lot of what has actually happened. It can be easy to forget that we’ve been through three different head coaches in what has been a turbulent and unstable time at the club. It can be easy to forget that Nacho Monreal and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have played a part in our Premier League campaign. It can be easy to forget we were in diabolical, relegation threatening form and at one point were just 6 points above the drop zone (after a significant amount of games). It can be easy to forget we had a head coach who insisted on using a ball winner as a number ten. It can be easy to forget we had a captain who told our own fans to ‘f*ck off’. It’s been some season, and it’s crazy to think we have a whole chapter left, where a whole new narrative could be created, and we could walk away with a trophy.
We travelled to St. James Park on the 11th August, as we looked to commence our campaign with a victory in the North East. The optimism going into the game was refreshing- after an initially frustrating summer where the ‘we care do you’ movement gathered pace, the Arsenal hierarchy finally acted and made a flurry of late signings, including the acquisition of Nicolas Pepe for a club record fee. Despite the disappointment in Baku and the implosion in the League in the backend of the 18/19 season, there was still widespread support for Unai Emery, and a feeling that after being financially backed in the transfer market, we’d see him elevate our side drastically.
After picking up two wins from our opening two games in relatively unconvincing fashion, we went into the two big games prior to the first international break in good spirits. We had good reason to be. The early signs displayed by loanee Dani Ceballos were encouraging, Aubameyang was on fire once again, and youngster Joe Willock was demonstrating his raw potential on the biggest stage. We were beginning to improve in our notorious attempts to play the ball out from the back, Nicolas Pepe was beginning to settle in, and the long-awaited returns of Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding were just around the corner.
A tepid performance at Anfield raised a lot of discussion, as Emery took a very pragmatic approach against Klopp’s side. Many argued it was a sensible approach to take against such an excellent offensive side and we were slightly unlucky with the outcome, whilst others argued it was another move away from Arsenal’s traditional identity. On the whole though, the tide had not changed on the slick-haired coach. An enthralling comeback in the North London Derby at the Emirates drew this period to a close.
The first game after the international break was arguably the turning point for many in their support of our head coach. Conceding a two goal lead at winless Watford, in a display that saw us allow over 30 shots on our goal, was a very worrying sign. Granit Xhaka admitted the team were scared in his post-match interview. This raised serious alarms over the player’s confidence in what their coach was asking of them, and question marks over the identity, or lack thereof, began to reverberate around the fanbase.
A pattern in our form then followed this. Results were positive, but performances were questionable. After beating Bournemouth on October 6th, Arsenal sat third in the league, having won four from eight, and losing just once. Our performances in Europe and the League Cup were yielding better displays as some of our younger players, namely Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, began to thrive and work their way into the League side.
However, this predictably unsustainable trend began to whither, as results declined significantly and our league position plummeted dramatically. This relegationesque form began with a defeat at Sheffield United, as we picked up just one win in nine games in all competitions. Toxicity around the club became prominent once again, as Emery seemingly lost all support from the supporters. The chaotic nature of his team reflected the diminishing atmosphere off the pitch. He left Xhaka out to dry, allowing him to be exposed to the fans anger, which essentially resulted in the grim incident at home to Palace. He consistently opted for strange and illogical team selections, and left Mesut Ozil stranded in the reserves, as the long standing feud between the two reached a climax. His poor communication in press conferences gave off an odd perception, as he seemingly defended the team’s horrendous performances in a state of delusion.
This all inevitably resulted in his dismissal, which quite clearly was far too delayed. It took a 96th minute equaliser against Southampton met with disappointment from both the fans inside the stadium and the players, and then a half empty Emirates against Frankfurt for the board to finally wake up. This delay arguably cost the team precious points, and the hierarchy must be held accountable for that.
Freddie Ljungberg was appointed as interim manager, and was unfortunately left rather exposed without the backing of an extended coaching team around him. One win in five Premier League games under the Swede saw our dire form continue, and it was evident that the task of rejuvenating us was slightly too heavy for him.
A shocked Mikel Arteta sat on the opposition bench as Manchester City annihilated Ljungberg’s Arsenal at the Emirates in mid-December. The broken and fractured atmosphere around the club was stark that day, it was in desperate need of new life, new energy- a new face to revitalise the club’s identity and stature.
Just 5 days later, Arteta was named the new Arsenal Head Coach. His transparency and directness in his opening interviews were a breath of fresh air, and there was certainly an air of optimism amongst fans that he was the right man for the job.
After a few encouraging performances but ultimately disappointing results, Arteta finally got his first win as Arsenal boss in what is probably the stand-out result in this dire season- a 2-0 win at home to Manchester United on New Year’s Day. The work he had done in such a short space of time was astounding; after looking like a team breathed of confidence and lacking any sort of tactical structure, in just a matter of days, the Spaniard had implemented a cohesive and organised shape, which enabled players to get behind him, as they felt they had specific roles and knew what was being asked of them.
This identity was beginning to creep back into the club, as a possession based style was born. Despite four league draws in a row following this emphatic win over United, it was clear that the mentality of the team was improving, and that our new shape had given us increased defensive solidity. Although we continued to struggle to create chances, there was more of a defined structure to the team; we were less frantic, with our shape giving us an element of control in games.
After a mid-season winter break in Dubai, the players returned and we finally began to build some momentum in our results. Despite crashing out of the Europa League in disappointing fashion, we won three league games in a row for the first time this season and progressed comfortably into the FA Cup quarter-final. Just as this momentum began to grow, Arteta was diagnosed with Covid-19, and the subsequent lockdown ensued.
And that’s about it I guess. An absolute rollercoaster of a season, and one that is likely to take many more twists and turns. This should give you a good idea of everything that happened before lockdown, and we should be ready to go from here. Cheers for reading, and we move from here on the site.